Dark Heart

Day 120 - Somewhere in the jungle

A beast as elusive as the jaguar was our quarry. As rare too as the spotted cat in these modern times; we hunted for it in the rainforest. Three days and two nights we would spend on its trail, a search to test the body and mind to their limits. We chased the real, we sought a prize no less than ´The Authentic Experience™´. Not for us the comforts of a jungle lodge. Nor either the luxuries of meals thrice daily or bottled water in our bag. There was no bag in fact, only a mosquito net and a guide named Pedro. Everything we needed, food and drink and shelter would come from the forest. A casual, curious click on the ´Extreme´ section of the Mogli Jungle Tours website was all it was. Alcohol is a substance of many abilities but I am ever astounded at the way it turns bad ideas into good ones, questionable into compelling. As another glass of red wine slipped down in a restaurant in La Paz far from the jungle my life suddenly became incomplete having never held a tarantula or eaten a termite. No other tour would do, it was ´Survivors´ or nothing. Rurrenabaque sits on the banks of the River Beni and would be the jumping off point for our Amazon adventure. A turbulent hour by propeller plane from La Paz we left behind the chilly altitude of the capital for beating sun and thick, humid air. The town seems to exist solely to send tourists off into nature’s sweaty embrace. Tour agencies throng the high street outnumbered only by outfitters selling anything and everything an intrepid explorer might need, from repellent to rubber boots. And knives. Big, mean knives that Mike persuaded me were essential to our survival. So there I stood in my new wellies wearing a shirt last owned by someone from, judging by the arm patch, the German Federal Agency for Technical Relief. I gazed upstream to where the jungle swallowed the river and, in my head, beyond that to the living hell where our steel would be put to use. On one shoulder a mosquito net, the sole concession to comfort allowed, on the other a camera to record our daring exploits for posterity. At my feet a murky flow that would cross a continent to find a great ocean. In front of me the rickety launch that would speed us 3 hours along the Beni to a remote jungle camp. The launch drew a slow arc in the water, the engine fired and that would be the last we’d see of it for 3 days. As I watched its departure burning pinpricks of pain erupted across my hand. I pulled it away from the tree against which I had leant to find both the hand and the tree festooned with the insectoid agents of Satan (they even sport his team colour) that are fire ants. Named both for their red hue and the flaming viciousness of their bite they attack without provocation, hang on with fierce tenacity and probably taught Pedro a whole new set of English language curses he’d never heard before. ´Lesson 1 - Mind your manos (hands)´. It was quite a nice jungle camp as it turned out, or so it seemed for the 30 seconds it took me, Michael and Pedro to walk straight through it. Our first challenge came within another 30 seconds. Pedro waltzed over the log laying some 5 feet above the stream and with an instruction of "tranquilla" (calm) beckoned me to follow. I looked at the trunk that seemed to grow more slender before my eyes, I looked at the stream and its unknown depth, its unsighted bottom and I....opted to wade. Fortunately our knowledgeable, experienced guide assured me that this would not be a problem. Unfortunately, I discovered as the water slipped over the top of my boots, that this was not true. A trail snaked, no, sneaked into the green maze. From the clutter of bended branch decked with leaves to the loamy leaf-littered soil, it was a wall of nature. It burst from the ground and covered the sky, it ensconced with a brutal edge. Our party was not the only using the trail as a large paw print attested, a jaguar had been this very way of late. Onward. And onward. Beads of sweat raced each other down my forehead before dropping off the end of my nose like it was a leaky tap. Trails were fond morning memories, Pedro hacked out a path seen only by him through grasping, snagging, scratching growth. The occasional fire ant hopped aboard for a stinging ride and proved as adept at biting through our clothes as they had our skin. Sustained by what forest fruit we found, hunger was nothing to the all-conquering discomfort of thirst. Water poured from every pore and my mouth ran dry. Fantastic images of cold Fanta straight from the fridge occupied my thoughts. Torturous remembrances of frosty beer straight from the tap dominated my conscious. And suddenly the most rhetorical question I have every heard rang out "agua?" Cool, fresh, slightly woody water bubbled out of the hefty lump of tree I suspended above my head and down into a parched desert held wide open and grateful for every drop. Pedro had identified the exposed roots of a tree that was not entirely unlike every other tree around us and with a few dashes of his machete furnished me with a rather unconventional drinking vessel. The sound of wild pigs nearby even failed to distract from the liquid bounty. ´Lesson 2 - Drink as much as you can, when you can´. A more interesting four-legged discovery of rodential significance was the capybara wallowing in a pool next to where we pitched camp for the night. As interesting as a glimpse of the world’s largest rodent was darkness would soon be upon us and a shelter was needed. A simple but sturdy construction of wood and fronded leaf was soon thrown up. As the night began its songs and its screams I stretched weary limbs and closed tired eyes. The night survived I rose, squeezed reluctant feet back into ill-fitting boots, packed my mosquito net into a backpack that Pedro had crafted, with considerable skill, from palm leaves and prepared to set out for another day under the canopy. It seems though that our jungle trekking stripes were earned on day 1 (the imaginary stripes that I now wore on the arm of my imaginary combat fatigues) for after a couple of hours walking we had already found our next campsite. We dropped our gear, hung up a ´Gone fishin´ sign and went hunting for bait. Bait, it transpired, would be the classic, cliché even, earthworm dug from a muddy bank and threaded onto sizeable hooks. The equipment was even simpler than the bait, line wound round a wooden spool. The fishing technique beat everything for its uncomplicatedness, after locating fish-filled pool (ask your guide to help in this), toss in hook and line and sink ´er. Slowly pull the line back to you and if you feel a bite give a mighty heave and pull the fish onto the bank. Easy. Or so I thought after Pedro had, with his very first cast, pulled in a 7 inch catfish. My catch took longer to come, in fact it needed a change of pool. A second location was so inhabited by buzzing, airborne nuisances we might as well have been fly-fishing! Arf! Our haul was OK so far with a few little roach added, but it was only likely to arouse our appetites without bedding them back down. I gave the line a sharp yank and out of nowhere a healthy, hearty catfish lay wildly flapping on the bank. I took the back of my knife to the unfortunate creature’s head and unleashed an inner bellow to the jungle at the sheer bloody masculinity of it all. ´Course Pedro came back from his spot with a whole string of fish and managed it without looking half as pleased with himself as I did but then again I expect he’s done this before. We washed and gutted the catch down by the river, scales glittered like sequins as the flow carried them away. After an hour or so of cooking in bamboo over an open fire I savoured the freshest fish of my life in all its succulent, flaky perfection. Dessert was a writhing white grub I found in a log. It had a delicate, buttery flavour I think would go well with steamed spinach. I watched the sunset through a peach-coloured sky scored by dashes of burnt orange and pink. Light peeked over the distant tree line to subtly illuminate the waters of a river that will, many miles from here, flow into the mighty Amazon. The cicadas had started their chirruping in the darkening jungle behind me while squawking macaws flew overhead in pairs, always pairs, returning home to roost. A waterfall downstream provided a low but constant thrum as the two fishermen were silhouetted against the shore (this part I imagine as I was one of those men). Some of the earlier catch had been reserved for bigger quarry and now myself and Pedro whirled weighed lines around our heads like lassos and out into the river’s powerful pull. And then we waited, in a meditative silence, for a twitch or a quiver. It never came. I didn’t care one bit. There was such peaceful solemnity to be found sitting by that river a fish on the line might only have disturbed it. The sun died after a last gasp of searing colour and compelled us to end our sojourn. But it had soothed my soul, if only for a while. It was beauty. The previous evening had been rounded out with a night walk in search of nocturnal animals. Apart from an endearingly cute tree mouse and a nearly sighted ocelot there wasn’t much to see, apart from a pristine darkness, a blacker-than-black, an absence of light as I have never seen before. Day 3 dawned and owing to our campsite’s proximity to the river I was able to drink most greedily of its muddy water. Suitably refreshed so began the trek back to civilisation. Time passed quickly as the terrain changed, one minute sandy and firm the next a glutinous orange bog. We passed a fallen log covered in thousands of tiny mushrooms not bigger than a pinhead. We passed trees with giant buttress roots taller than a man. We passed the tracks of pigs moving at speed and the jaguar tracks beside them from the animal no doubt inducing their haste. I was sad to be leaving the jungle despite the deprivation and discomfort. I wanted to see more, to see the weird and wonderful that may lie through the next thicket. But I took pleasure from having completed the tour, from having ´survived´, from having done all that was asked of me by man and by nature. ´Lesson 3 - Do that which you cannot in order that you might´. Next time 20 days, now that would be a test.

Red, white and blue

Day 117 - Salar de Uyuni

Traditional Bolivian recipe -
Take 1 large, flat plain (about 4000 square miles)
Add a few pinches of salt (about 1 trillion)
Leave to bake under a hot sun for a few years (about 10 thousand)
You're done, tourists will eat it up.

The salt flats south of Uyuni are a remorseless sheet of crystalline white formed by the drying of a lake. Perpetually clear skies mean the sun bounces blindingly off the highly reflective surface and wearing sunglasses is a near necessity in this sterile emptiness. We stood outside the office where we had booked our 3 day tour awaiting our fellow tourees, people came and people went though two parents and their 3 boisterous children seemed to be lingering, how I prayed it it wouldn't be them. When our 4x4 did arrive it was preloaded with 3 girls and a boy of similar ages to ourselves, no guarantee of good times but a welcome start nonetheless. Darren and Dee were a couple from Ireland, Teresa and Sofia sisters from Germany. Myself and Darren discovered quickly that we both supported football teams from the north of England who wore red and were managed by Scots. Alas he had chosen poorly but I resolved to treat him with the kindness and respect that have always marked English-Irish relations. After a scenic graveyard of trains and a little too long staring at the flats the evening was drawing in. The place we stayed for the night was a ghost town in all but population (though I include stray dogs in the census). The building itself was a simple concrete hall with dorms leading off it and fronted by an enclosed courtyard for vehicles. The toilets flushed by means of a jug of water and the fact that hot showers were charged for allowed me to continue my soap dodging for another day. Our group seated itself at one of the tables in the *ahem* dining room and feasted upon a welcome snack of tea and dry crackers. we were eventually served a proper meal and having sourced some social lubricant in bottles stayed up talking about families and the Irish gave us an overview of the little town in the Emerald Isle from whence they came (and its eclectic cast of characters). The generator flicked off but the conversation continued by torchlight while outside a starscape of startling density covered the sky. A thousand twinkling dots broke the black canvas and my eyes swept back and forth without cease over the universe's infinite light show. It was an eloquent, wordless explanation of mankind's drive to explore space. Morning came to Nowheresville, Bolivia and found a tour party starting forlornly at a stricken 4x4. Luckily it was not our tour party but another one who had shared our breezeblock palace for the night. Our tour guide Pedro (no not the same one) endeavoured to assist in their hour of need. Deducing that it was a battery issue his solution appeared to be to remove the working one from our vehicle and give it to them. To collective relief (from one group anyway) he was only using it to jump start the other car with a couple of spanners and his body as a human electrical conductor. The second day of the tour took in rock formations carved into bizarre shapes by grating winds. Pedro never missed an opportunity to point out their vague resemblance to native animals. Lagoons provided occasional respite from the deserted land. They took a variety of hues though variety is probably too strong a term, after seeing our 5th green-blue pool of water Pedro's inquiry of "photograph?" was met with a resounding "no". One lagoon was different though. The colour of sacrificial blood dripping down the steps of an Incan pyramid, icebergs of white borax ringed its shores. Flamingoes stalked the shallows filtering out whatever goodness they could find in the seething water. It was a justly rewarding sight for enduring the (relative) monotony of the other lagoons and one I shall not forget. Our evening's rest would be taken in a building of striking similarity to the one of the previous day. The major difference being that it lacked any kind of town surrounding it. It lacked any kind of anything surrounding it. Isolated though we were Darren and I had located the the corner shop cum off-license within 10 minutes of arrival. Our group reconvened around the dining table and wearily munched on more dry crackers. The next table along had been laid out for a tour group that had yet to arrive and it had a noticeably higher class of biscuit on it. Theft is perhaps not the most appropriate word, a temporary and highly subtle switch was effected though. Anyway it was clear by this point that we had no good will to lose. The girl in the kitchen met the simplest and politest request with barely suppressed contempt. Our cheery (and slightly ironic) smiles as she passed the table actually elicited a snarl. If I were being charitable I might say that the fact she had to share a room with Pedro that night may have been weighing on her mind. The previous evening's leftover food was presented to us as dinner (I cannot prove this) and the night played out much the same - wine, laughter and mild, good-natured racism. Darren shivered in a sleeping bag in the front seat, Mike wrapped himself in a picnic rug in the back and and all of us wondered what what earthly purpose being up at half four in the morning in freezing temperatures could serve. The purpose, it turned out, was hot geysers, gas bursting from the earth with a sulphurous tang. We gladly huddled around one to feel its warmth. Next stop was a hot spring whose steaming surface promised respite from the frigid air. There was only the small matter of stripping off behind a hut to change into swimming shorts. Dee led the way and spent a quarter of an hour trying to persuade the rest of us it was a worthwhile experience. And it was. Warmth seeped back into my bones as the sun rose over the horizon. The tour was almost done, we were bearing down on the Chilean border where Pedro would leave us. Far less that the sights it was the sounds that will define my memories of these 3 days. The sounds of bottle tops popping and laughter erupting.

This trip sponsored by Clos

Day 103 - La Paz

After a morning of syringe shopping and staring at baby llama fetuses in the witches market we relaxed over a pint in the self-appointed ´5th best bar in La Paz´. Notwithstanding the use of Comic Sans for signage and its Lonely Planet declared infamy as the worst cultural experience in the city ´Oliver´s Travels´ was an agreeable watering hole. Staffed by a Brummie named Kass we managed to find our way there on each of the 8 days we spent in the capital. It certainly merited several more visits than a nearby curry house who, close to closing time and after the promise of a sizeable tip, served us some of the most unpleasant Indian cuisine I have ever tasted. Convinced the bill we were given included the aforementioned tip we calculated our debt sans an unworthy tribute and made a hasty exit. Two waiters dashing out into the street after us insisted that was not the case and we reluctantly coughed up the money (I would have happily coughed up the food). Our efforts to watch England in the Six Nations had been on a downward curve of success since the first game. From live in Bogota to stuttering streaming in Popayan, a few hours after the fact in Huanchaco to this. Days had elapsed since we had played France and, having studiously avoided the result, footage of a quality that would be unacceptable to Mongolian pirate TV was now downloading. Through blocky frames and amidst bemused waiters who indulged our need for power and wifi amiably we observed a fine if belated victory. Comforted by the fact the Oliver´s had the final game live a few days hence we chose to forget the fact that the plane tickets to Thailand we had just booked left us only 7 weeks to cover the rest of South America and that tarrying was obviously inadvisable. The time was used by repeatedly failing to get yellow fever shots, watching terrible films and eating cardiac-arresting amounts of fried chicken. Oh and booking tickets for a tour in the Amazon Rainforest. A fierce physical challenge lay ahead. Our flight to a little town on a tributary of the world´s greatest river left at 8AM the next morning. The final day of the world´s greatest rugby competition began at 8AM 24 hours previous to it. The date - 17th March, St. Patrick´s Day. Oliver´s was holding a ´Plastic Paddy´s Day´ celebration in which all non-Irish people present in the bar would be given a shot every hour, on the hour. This would not aid us in catching our flight.


Day 101 - Copacabana

It may have fallen short of outright murder but manslaughter might have been on the charge sheet if we hadn't released the old man from his duties. An impromptu, rudimentary and seemingly insurmountable roadblock had seen us halted in a little tumbleweed town on the Peruvian-Bolivian border. Around 50 people stood in the road a quarter of a mile ahead of the ever-growing convoy of lorries and minibuses. I strolled under the dry sun to their fleshy barricade. Debate calmly and unhurriedly continued as the reassuring sight of a police car formed in the distance. The crowd calmly and unhurriedly parted as if Moses himself was driving and reformed again behind the unfussed and departing officers. Eventually some maverick among our fellow passengers suggested taking the road around the unfathomable hindrance. And so it was we were deposited next to an wisened old Bolivian a kilometre or so from the border. How bad I felt as he struggled up the hill having had his fare negotiated down to a pittance, his pedal rickshaw slowing as his wheezing grew ever faster. About halfway through the journey we thanked him for his labours, tipped and hopped off.
We sat in front of the setting sun on Lake Titicaca eating a second identical burger provided courtesy of the fact that 'dos mas' is, it seems, an ambiguous request that can as well apply to dinner as it can to beer. My travelling companion held court on the simplicity of manning sailboats and insisted we should rent one the very next day. The former Sea Cadet assured me we'd not get lost due to the fact that boats have 'udders' by which one steers (or dictates the direction you want the boat to moove). He seemed less certain of his seaworthiness a couple of days later as we rocked uncertainly across a slender stretch of the lake on our way to the world's highest capital.

Llamas and Apaches

Day 97 - Puno

I had to sympathise with the rodent as it stared up at me with a fixed grin. Back home it would have led a cosseted life, fed and kept safe. Here in Peru though the Guinea Pig was splayed across my plate, its bedding fried potatoes rather than sawdust. My sympathies receded as I savoured the pleasant, slightly gamey flavour and, with a little effort, the bones were soon picked clean. I was in a restaurant in Puno which sits on the shores of Lake Titicaca whose claim to be the world's largest high altitude body of water was continually and vigorously disputed by Michael. Our hotel room lacked amenities like natural light and combined with the thin, lethargic air was starting to resemble a coffin after 3 days of near-constant habitation. Time had seemingly ground to a halt in this rainy town. I and, after some cajoling, Mike decided to break the sit in by booking a visit to the ruins of Sillustani. It is known for its pre and post-Inca funerary towers which cluster on a hill overlooking miles of empty landscape patrolled by the occasional alpaca. Our guide was a knowledgeable indigenous chap called Cesar who informed the group of the tower's history by way of an impressively comprehensive infographic scratched into the soil. On the bus journey back to Puno we stopped at the home of a local family and were offered the chance to purchase their wares and pet their llamas, all for a few coins of course. I stayed on the bus while my fellow passengers enjoyed the human zoo.
Like Herodotus' dog-headed men tales of people living on islands made of reeds must have astounded reason before mass tourism found them. As we sat aboard the boat awaiting departure to the unique isles my fears were piqued by a fellow who climbed aboard and began knocking out The Beatles on panpipe. Once upon a time the Uros islands in Lake Titicaca would have been places of myth and hearsay, now they are another stop on the traveler's trail, a well rehearsed pantomime of ethnicity, a bazaar of colourful mass-fabricated goods. We drifted past islands replete with public telephones, satellite dishes and one that appeared to function as a petrol station. Drifted in a craft dubbed the 'Mercedes-Benz' of the islander's vessels, a ludicrously unwieldy construction of reeds fronted by two grimacing dragon heads. Why are these people here? Has no-one told them that the tribes that persecuted and drove them to this aquatic isolation are long gone? They don't seem to be here to live the lifestyle of their forbears, tourism and the modern world have tainted that. No, they are here to carve an existence by the best means they can and if that is by bluffing an empty hand then who can begrudge them. Why was I here? A harder question.

A dream within a dream

Day 95 - Machu Picchu

To look at Machu Picchu is to see a dream. I cannot say for sure it was the dream of those who built it, no-one can. But to me it is a dream of isolation, of insulation, even of inoculation from the cruelties of the wider world. At the absolute least it is my dream of a simple life not crazed by the fever of progress. Not a life where all too often my actions seem to lack purpose, all too often are wracked by doubt and despair. I want to eat, to sleep, to love without the unremitting analysis. A dream of switching off whatever part of my twisted consciousness floated up all those years ago to hover above me like some departing soul in a hospital ward.
I used to disdain stasis feeling those who lacked ambition, had not the desire to drive themselves onwards and upwards were unworthy of my time or my employ. But perhaps they saw, even unconsciously, what I did not. That all we truly need in this life is something to do, something to love and something to hope for. Demand nothing more and perhaps happiness can be yours. I don't think happiness lies on top of a mountain but maybe the conditions for it do. Yet even as I feel these things in my heart my head cannot permit the naive yearning to fully take over. Every person casts a shadow and in that shadow lies the seeds of someone's undoing, theirs or other peoples. What we create we destroy, an ancient and endless cycle. So, while I dream of lying on my back in a meadow bespeckled by a hundred colours of wildflower as a warm breeze caresses the tall grass and I gaze up at a perfect blue sky broken only by a few fluffy clouds of a pristine porcelain, I can feel the heat of the raging fire tearing across the field consuming all in its rampant desire to exist and proliferate.
I dream of a simple house with creaky wooden floors and a vast fireplace scented with woodsmoke. Where the windows open wide in summers that aren't too hot and close tightly in winters not too bitter. Where vegetables grow in the garden and ripe fruit burdens the trees. A place where every person's needs are few but satisfied, where intolerance is not tolerated and all live by the mantra of 'do no harm'. If I ever find such a place I shall have to set it ablaze.
Because it will be a dream.

Rising damp

Day 92 - Cuzco

After a dinner of chicken, rice and marmalade, a night's sleep made possible by barbiturates, a breakfast of dry crackers and 25 hours of solid bus travel we had arrived in the Inca heartland. If there are two things that Cuzco has in abundance it is tourists and rain. They pour into and onto the city daily, though given that it was low season there was fewer of the former and rather more of the latter. Ankle-deep torrents ran down the cobbled streets and cars drove great bow-waves over pedestrians and open shopfronts alike. Despite that and the heavy foreign presence,  of which we were hardly in a position to complain about, the place was a pretty, pleasant place to spend a couple of days. I declined the chance to have my picture taken with an alpaca (similar to a llama) for 5 Peruvian soles and instead elected to pay an extra 5 to have one slapped between a couple of pieces of bread with fries on the side, tasty.  We also enjoyed some admirably authentic fish and chips and took in an Irish pub which, at 3300 metres, claims to be the world's highest.But neither food not drink had drawn us to Cuzco, instead its proximity to one of the wonders of this planet gave the place its magnetic pull. We were aiming higher still.
Truly the bus journey of the trip so far. The road wound up and between snow-capped peaks, moss crawled over rocks and waterfalls gushed from every crevice. Fir trees punctuated slopes dominated by short, hardy grasses. If I could compare it to anything it would be the Scottish Highlands, it was scenery you could not tear your eyes away from.  Patchwork fields in the foothills had given way to this wet, inhospitable land shivering in the clouds. And yet still humans had pushed roads through steep mountain sides, still basic dwellings scattered the altitudinous plains. I have never before seen water gush with such angry ferocity as it carved its way to the ocean far away. Heavy with silt the rivers bucked and spat over their stony beds. Frugality drove us along this circuitous route through valley and over sharp promontory, via bus, car and train to a little town called Agua Calientes sat in the shadow of a human endeavour that puts the aforementioned modern engineering to shame.